My favorite vocal on a Rolling Stones record comes not from Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, but from Merry Clayton on the apocalyptic classing "Gimme Shelter." Go listen to that record some time and listen not to the great guitar interplay or the very fine performance from Jagger, but instead to Clayton's counter vocal. She sounds like her skin is about rupture, like her spleen is about to launch itself into orbit. She's singing as if the fate of the world depends on it. What's more amazing is that as she spins out of control, she never sounds like she's playing a role; she's purely and perfectly in the moment and it's extraordinary.
Whitney Houston did that routinely throughout her extraordinary early career and in the process ruined music for the rest of us. The late and dearly missed Etta James is still the greatest of all time, but Whitney was no slouch. She made mediocre songs memorable, good songs great, and great songs timeless. She could access a place from within few can and when she summoned it, magic happened.
She took a pleasant country song by Dolly Parton and made it iconic, legendary. Nobody knows all the words to "I Will Always Love You" and you don't need to. Whitney didn't need poetry. She needed five words and one of the greatest vocal instruments God ever installed inside a human body. The rest of the language is ornamental. Five words. She told you everything you need to know about love, passion, devotion, and yearning in five words. Put your pencils down. Lesson is over. Class dismissed.
She spoiled us by taking ownership of our ears and ruining them for those who'd dare to follow in her footsteps, by being so damn much better than everyone else they resorted to parlor tricks, parody, and melisma. She taunted the competition because she didn't have to do anything special to embarrass them. She didn't rely on tricks or gadgets; she opened her mouth, sang, and sent everybody else's ass packing. Damn the masses for trying to hang with her, they never stood a chance.
I can just imagine her showing up on one of Simon Cowell's 200 shows and doing a short 20 seconds, a cappella, and him looking out at the other contestants, asking, "Can any of you do that? Because if you can't, go sit down."
She took a difficult song to sing about a battle from The War of 1812, known only for being The War of 1812, and made it something beyond patriotism. How many people have sung "The Star Spangled Banner" over the years? How many versions are as stirring? How many are as iconic? How many are perfect? One. Hers. Okay, fine, I'll give you Hendrix from Woodstock as iconic and maybe stirring, albeit it in a completely different way. It was a great, signature moment for Jimi and a brilliant deconstruction, but I'll still take Whitney for pure, clear emotional power and force of will.
I suppose it's only fitting she was called home on a Saturday; it meant she be on time to lead Sunday morning services. She led the choir of the heavenly hosts and sanctification sounded better than ever.
I'm a little grumpy with the Big Man above for recalling her but what else was she supposed to do? Her talent transcends time and place. We held onto her tightly and in less than a decade -- not even enough to be an entire grain of sand in the expanse of infinity -- she ruined music. Earth conquered, she moved on. She slew the pretenders and bathed us in the glory of her gift; not bad for a life's work.
Maybe she was ready to go home.